Monday, November 24, 2008

Board Game Review: Mr. Jack

Last week I did my first board game trade (Thanks Boardgamegeek!) I got rid of Galaxy Trucker and picked up Guillotine and Mr. Jack. Guillotine is a fun, light and easy card game, and Mr. Jack is a 2-player strategy game that plays in about 30 minutes.

In Mr. Jack, there are 8 investigators out searching the streets for the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. One of the investigators secretly is Jack the ripper, and one of the players plays the detective who is trying to reveal Jack's identity while the other player takes on the role of Jack, attempting to keep his identity secret and, if possible, slip away in the night and escape.

What's in the box?

This is what you'll find inside the box.

The $30 asking price might feel like a bit on the high side for some, but I think it's about right. You get the game board, 9 wooden tokens (8 characters plus a marker to keep track of which round it is,) 8 character cards and 8 alibi cards. The cards are high quality and feel very durable, I have no doubt they'll hold up well for a long time. The Mr Jack Extension sounds like a different story, as I'd be hard pressed to pay $20 for 5 new characters.

How long does the game take to play?

Mr. Jack tends to last around 30 minutes. It can end quickly in a few unusual circumstances, or could run longer if one or both players have a tendency to over-analyze the board, but a half hour seems to be the sweet spot.

How does the game end?

Mr. Jack ends after the 8th round. Jack wins if: he manages to flee via one of the 4 exits while hidden or if he has not been revealed at the end of turn 8 or if the Detective player makes an incorrect accusation. The Detective wins by correctly deducing Jack's identity and accusing him.

How does it work?

At the beginning of the game the Jack player draws a card from the alibi cards and sets it aside. The character on the alibi card is secretly Jack the Ripper, and the Detective player must figure out which character is on that card. The board is then set up and the game is played over 8 rounds.

A round consists of 4 cards being laid face up from character card deck, and the Jack player and Detective player each choosing 2 of these characters, moving them around the board and using their special abilities to achieve their goal. At the end of every other round, the 8 character cards are shuffled back together ensuring that every character will be used an equal number of times in a full 8 round game.

A brief overview of the 8 characters:

The character cards and tokens for each of the 8 characters.

- Miss Stealthy: moves 1-4 spaces and can pass through buildings and other spaces that normally block movement.
- Sir William Gull: moves 1-3 spaces or may switch places with another character.
- Inspector Lestrade: moves 1-3 spaces and must move one of the police barricades to an open exit (there are 2 barricades, thus 2 of the exits are always open and 2 are always blocked.)
- John Smith: moves 1-3 spaces and must move one of the lamp tokens to an unlit lamp.
- Sergent Goodley: moves 1-3 spaces. He also can force other characters to move a total of 3 spaces in his direction (he calls them to him with his police whistle.)
- Sherlock Holmes: moves 1-3 spaces and allows you to draw an alibi card from the stack (the character on the alibi card is innocent.)
- John H. Watson: moves 1-3 spaces. He also holds a lantern which illuminates everything in a straight line in front of him (any characters in that line are considered to be seen.)
- Jeremy Bert: moves 1-3 spaces and must relocate one of the manhole covers to an open manhole (characters may use a movement point to enter the sewers and another point to emerge from any other open sewer on the board. The manhole cover marker closes a sewer entrance/exit.)

The game revolves around determining which characters on the board are hidden and which are currently seen. A character is seen if they are adjacent to a lit lamp post, next to another character or in the path of Dr Watson's lantern light. Otherwise the character is hidden. At the end of each round the Jack player tells their opponent whether Jack is currently seen or hidden. The Detective player than takes the token for each innocent character and flips it over so the grey side is up. The Detective must attempt to whittle down the number of suspects until they figure out who the killer is, while the Jack player needs to keep Jack's identity a secret as long as possible. If Jack was hidden at the end of last turn, he can escape via one of the 4 exits. I have yet to see this happen. It seems like something the Jack player could take advantage of if the opportunity presents itself, but I think it would be pretty difficult to arrange.

The game board during a typical Mr. Jack game.

Who will like this game?

Those of us who are very analytical will find a lot to like with this game. All of the options for everyone are laid out for all to see every turn, so the only luck comes from the order the characters are revealed for play each round, so people who are turned off by luck and rolling dice won't find either of those here.

Who won't like this game?

Some people might be turned away by the dark theme, after all for many people running around in the streets hunting for Jack the Ripper doesn't sound like a roaring good time. The art direction is fairly cartoonish, making the tone of the game pretty light despite the dark subjct matter. For the first few games I felt pretty overwhelmed by all the potential choices I had to consider while keeping the goal in mind, and that might turn some people away as well.

What I liked:

I like the combination of the dark theme and cartoony character art. The cat-and-mouse gameplay is really well done, and the games are quick but tense. The game's rules are simple and easy to pick up, but there is a lot of depth and strategy to be had here.

What I disliked:

Not much. I can see the Detective player having to make a blind guess in the last turn of the game if they haven't figured out who Jack is. This could give the game an anti-climactic "coin toss" sort of ending. Granted we've only been in this situation once, and my wife outsmarted me by moving the innocent suspect away and making it look like she was trying to keep him safe. I ignored the other suspect, caught the runner, accused him and lost. This was a memorable game, so I'm not sure if my concern here is warranted. Anyhow, I didn't find much to be unhappy about with Mr. Jack.

The Bottom Line:

Mr. Jack is a fun 2-player game that plays in about a half an hour, is easy to learn and requires quite a bit of thinking and analysis. It's a cat and mouse game, a battle of wits, and while the dark theme may turn some off, those folks will be missing out on a great little game. Mr. Jack is becoming one of our favorites.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Earth: The Last Night There

Wife and I have been playing a new (to us) board game called Last Night on Earth. It's a survivors versus zombies spoof of those awful B-horror movies some of us love so much. One player (or team of players) plays the role of 4 human survivors drawn from a pool of 8. Each has different abilities, and while the items and weapons make the biggest difference in the game, the abilities help differentiate the heroes from each other a bit. You'll see many horror movie stereotypes here: the drifter, the high school quarterback, the priest, the drifter and the nurse among others. The player controlling the heroes get 4 characters, the player(s) controlling the zombies gets a pool of 14 zombies to use.

There are different scenarios in the game, each with different winning conditions. "Die Zombies Die!" simply asks the heroes to kill 15 zombies before dawn, while the "Gas up the Truck" scenario requires the heroes to find gasoline and keys, then get at least 2 heroes to the truck in the center of the map. Each team moves around the map, draws cards and engages in combat with the other team (though more often the heroes are trying to escape from the zombies.) There are lots of dice to be rolled, as this is very much an Ameritrash game: lots of combat, lots of dice, heavy theme, plenty of interaction with opponents, etc.

Last Night on Earth is good, campy fun. Between the card drawing and die rolling, there is definitely a strong element of luck, but there is plenty of room for strategy and decision making. It's a great game that isn't made to be taken too seriously. It's kind a lighter cousin to Arkham Horror, which is exactly what I wanted when I picked it out. I'm anxious to try this with more than 2 players.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

It's November Now

Last night was Halloween, the first one I've been actually involved with in a long time. We took daughter out trick-or-treating and had a good time. She was dressed as a ladybug, and she got lots of oohs and aahs and compliments. She was a little freaked out at first but she hit her stride after a few houses. She can say 'trick or treat,' just not when she's on someone's porch asking for candy. She would say 'please?' or, more commonly, 'puppy?' Wife was dressed as a pirate and I was dressed as a guy in a t-shirt and jacket. I did have a lady tell me I look like Mephistopheles.

In other news, I have a $25 Gamestop gift card burning a hole in my pants. There are so many great games that just came our/are coming out soon, I need to hang onto this until I can afford one. I may just use it to reserve Persona 4. Dragon Quest IV is the cheapest thing on my wishlist, but I think P4 may be harder to find so my Gamestop dollars are best spent there.

I found an old card game I got at Gen Con 97 called GROO: The Game, based on the comic strip of the same name. I remember Couch and I saw them sitting out on a table at a booth for free, so we each took one. The next day we passed by the booth and saw the same table full of GROO games with a big sign that said "$15.99 each." Whoops. Anyway, we played it a couple of times, and it was okay but nothing special. Fast forward to now and it seems the game is long since out of print, not too popular but somewhat sought after by the small cult following the comic strip has. I posted it on Ebay yesterday for $50. It's already got a bid and 6 days left, so woohoo! I'm thinking I might just leave the money in Paypal and periodically add to it to create a Gen Con fund for this year's vacation (which will hopefully actually happen.)

My wife after a game of Thurn & Taxis which she may have possibly won.

My latest batch of free board games showed up a few days ago. Wife and I wanted to try Fury of Dracula last night with it being Halloween and all, but so far it seems reminiscent of Arkham Horror - not in content but in the amount of components and size of the rulebook. We decided to play Thurn & Taxis instead. It's a game about the Bavarian postal service in the horse-and-carriage era, and it's quite fun. I'm not joking. Boo!